the youth are in the streets!
Colourful flares, clashes with police, broken glass and barricades kicked off my time in Sussex University; staying in the occupation was perhaps less action-packed, but just as politically charged.
Occupy Sussex was my first experience of an occupation, something I had been wanting to get involved with for a while, following enthusiastic accounts from those who have been involved, of how amazing occupations really are. My experiences in the conference centre of Bramber House suitably impressed me, but I can’t say it was anything like what I expected.
In the kitchen there were four types of forks: Main forks, starter forks, dessert forks and fish forks. We mixed them up and called them collectively the People’s Fork. I watched wide-eyed as people took swigs out of large glass bottles with minimalist blue patterns on the labels, mistaking them for expensive bottles of vodka. I found out later, that I wasn’t surrounded by such hardcore drinkers; actually this was the unnecessarily posh water served by Sussex University to the members of the upper echelons they entertained in their spacious conference rooms. The more time I spent in the occupation, the more surreal the space felt. You would occasionally see someone mentally struggling with themselves about whether to extol the virtues of the large variety of posh herbal tea we were enjoying or to condemn it as bourgie.
But then, at the same time, it was very clear why the occupation had to be in this space, the space where the Vice Chancellor and others court potential investors: to challenge the idea that a university exists to make profits. They hadn’t just picked this space because it made for a fairly comfortable night’s sleep and there were enough plates, mugs and wine glasses for everyone that washing up was only made necessary to avoid being surrounded in a sea of dirty ceramic. This was symbolic as well as practical.
The focus the occupiers kept was admirable. We agreed to give back the floors of the building that we didn’t need, so as not to stop students going to their seminars. Only one door was smashed to allow entrance to Sussex House and the papers burnt outside were management’s banking documents. It would have been so easy to get carried away and try and take the whole of Bramber House and Sussex House too, but regular meetings made sure we kept our focus and stayed on the same page.
I can’t say I enjoyed the meetings much though. Consensus decision making makes me want to vomit at the best of times, so I was more than unimpressed when I heard that’s how the occupation did their meetings. I understand it as a way to stretch decisions out painfully and bicker about details until everyone agrees with a proposal, or at least until all dissenters have given up and left the room. To be fair, it really depends on the group of people involved and how it’s executed, so seeing as most of the people there were really politically on point, it wasn’t quite as awful as it could have been, and we did actually manage to reach some decisions.
It was nice to see people from various sections of the left coming together in a mostly friendly, effective way. Excluding someone heckling “fucking Trots!” when an SWP member introduced themselves in the national meeting, it was a fairly inclusive affair. Anarchists and Communists rubbed shoulders, and I learnt a lot from all the different people I met there, from political theories to how to resist bailiffs, to how to change a lock. The occupation brought people together, radicalised students, and formed powerful links across the young left.
It was interesting and refreshing to see members of all sorts of political groups and standpoints getting together. Not that we had the time to wax philosophical and debate theory (that much), but the variety of approaches and attitudes were pretty obvious and kept us all on our toes. The free exchange of ideas liberated us from that all too familiar bubble of agreement that many small left wing groups get stuck in. Left wing may not even encapsulate the wide range of political opinions in the space, which bizarrely enough, I’m going to argue was a good thing. When a movement is shown to be strictly lefty, it can be intimidating to students who would not align themselves to the left for whatever reason. The fact that unlikely people were able to get on board opened up new conversations, challenging and strengthening arguments by virtue of having to explain them. We taught and learnt from each other.
Obviously, these were happy side effects, and not the aim of the occupation. Occupy Sussex aims to stop the onslaught of privatisation in their university, and is arguably one of the most successful attempts in doing this by any group of people in the current fight against austerity. Let’s use Occupy Sussex as a catalyst and inspiration. Let’s fight as fiercely as the occupiers, in all our struggles. Let’s maintain the momentum of the truly revitalised student movement. Students and workers; unite and fight!
By Wandia, LUU Revsoc